You wouldn’t want to pass up a chance to watch the Abbey Theatre perform “The Plough and the Stars,” the Sean O’Casey play that provoked riots when the Dublin troupe debuted it in 1926. Two performances is too few of this revitalized signature piece, a featured part of the Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100 festival. The Wednesday-Thursday engagement in the Eisenhower Theater sold out.
What lucky ticketholders are treated to is an appropriately irreverent handling of a legendarily irreverent script. O’Casey wrote “Plough” a decade after the 1916 Easter Rising that triggered Irish independence, yet it was anything but a sentimental heroic account. The loquacious characters rattle around a Dublin tenement, arguing about class and religion and nothing at all for the first two acts.
The last two acts bring the battle and a profound complexity. O’Casey protests the carnage — lord, how the women howl throughout this play! — even as he acknowledges the heavy British hand.
It’s a ramshackle drama famously shot through with satire as O’Casey undercuts national causes and heroic poses, and director Sean Holmes gives it a newly rebellious underclass look. It’s modernized, with characters tottering around in jeans and throwing empty plastic cups to the floor in the second act’s pub, where the bartender uses a remote control to operate his music and TV (which blares pro-Irish nationalist political speech at frenzied levels). Jon Bausor’s set is dominated by a tower of steel scaffolding that suggests a tenement stairwell, apparently meant in part to implicate current housing troubles in Ireland. The thing topples impressively before the show is over.
It’s a grubby milieu that screams poverty and hardship, yet as always the O’Casey characters are joltingly alive. The production’s triumph is the fluid, splendidly balanced ensemble, which for harmony and power rivals any other cast seen in Washington this year. The Irish pronunciations might challenge American ears at times, but no more than could be expected, and Wednesday night’s audience was keenly attentive. The actors command the Eisenhower, and so many characters step forward and get their verbal and emotional punches in that the show feels truly panoramic.
Who’s the leader of these mighty squabblers? Impossible to say, though the action hinges on Jack and Nora Clitheroe, a married couple ripped apart by the battles. Jack and Nora are played with romantic ferocity by Ian-Lloyd Anderson and Kate Stanley Brennan, and that tone seems to bubble up from the ground as O’Casey’s figures keep squaring off. David Ganly, looking like a Beckettian tramp in his too-small coat and bowler, makes an appealingly Falstaffian Fluther Good, who comes to the defense of the pugnacious prostitute Rosie (the tough yet bruised Nyree Yergainharsian) against the ungallant charges of the zealous socialist known as the Covey (a chesty Ciaran O’Brien).
James Hayes’s Peter Flynn is a figure of fun in his pompous patriotic uniform, and the tiffs between Mrs. Gogan (a brash and sassy Janet Moran) and the drunken sage Bessie Burgess (Eileen Walsh, titanically defiant) hit absurd comic heights. The women’s relationships also pivot this play toward its depths as bullets begin to hit hapless targets.
“The Plough and the Stars” is so frequently done that even this version hardly feels definitive. When the Abbey inevitably returns to the play as it hits its 100-year anniversary a decade from now, this production’s nearly campy bits of cabaret singing and its generally savage look — fluorescent lights are key — probably won’t be regarded as immortal touches. Even so, this vigorous performance, which will tour elsewhere in the United States later this year, convincingly reinforces the mettle of O’Casey’s great play.
The Plough and the Stars, by Sean O’Casey. Directed by Sean Holmes. Costumes, Catherine Fay; lights, Paul Keogan; music and sound designer, Philip Stewart. With Tony Clay, Lloyd Cooney, Rachel Gleeson, Liam Heslin, Ger Kelly and Nima Teleghani. Through Thursday at the Kennedy Center. Tickets $35-$60 (subject to change and sold out). Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.